After the litany of awkward antiwar polemics foisted on filmgoers in the fall (In the Valley of Elah, The Kingdom, Rendition, Lions for Lambs, Redacted), it seemed fair to ask what it would take for Hollywood to make a good movie about war and politics. The answer provided by writer Aaron Sorkin and director Mike Nichols is simplicity itself: Leave out most of the war and all the politics.
Charlie Wilson’s War
won’t have any effect on the course of world affairs--and it’s sensible enough
to recognize this. The backdrop of the movie may be the fall of the
Based on George Crile’s stranger-than-fiction account of the
CIA’s largest-ever covert operation, the film follows the 1980s evolution of
Wilson from amiable, boozy philanderer to amiable, boozy philanderer with a
purpose--specifically, providing support to the Afghan mujahideen trying to expel the Soviet invasion. He was inspired in
this cause in part by
The rest, as they say, is history. The
It’s a moral that cuts neatly across partisan
lines--half-hawkish, half-dovish, and uncontroversial enough that Nichols and
Sorkin don’t have to waste time scoring political points. The script is
sprinkled with enough contemporaneous references (to Tip O’Neill, Boris
Spassky, Rudy Giuliani, etc.) to feel smart, but never so many that it looks
like it’s trying to be Serious. And it crams quite a bit into its slim,
97-minute running time, chronicling not merely
Hanks is an odd choice to play “Good Time Charlie,” the bluff, womanizing Texan (someone like Thomas Hayden Church seems a closer fit), but he gives the role a likable spin nonetheless, conjuring a congressman a bit more languid and ironic than one imagines the original to have been. Julia Roberts is a considerably greater stretch as the fiftysomething man-eater Herring, her platinum helmet of hair appearing borrowed from someone else or perhaps even spliced in from another movie. It’s also interesting to note that even as Roberts is clearly (and shrewdly) starting to look for ways to transition into older roles, she’s not yet ready to put all her eggs in that basket: One scene in the movie has her answering the telephone while stepping, bikini-clad, from the pool, revealing a bod that is fifty going on twenty-two. But despite the dissonance, Roberts turns in an adequate performance, rescuing an act of miscasting that could easily have proven disastrous.
From the moment he appears onscreen, however, this is Philip Seymour Hoffman’s movie. His rumpled, cranky spy is hilarious--George Smiley by way of Jack Black--but with an edge of quiet ferocity that makes every scene he’s in play a little sharper. He’s the funniest character in the film, but also seems the most real, a man whose terse wit and don’t-give-a-shit demeanor might easily have been forged by a career of unseemly, spookish deeds. There are times when even his costars seem a touch afraid of him, as if he’s brought an unanticipated, potentially dangerous element into the otherwise breezy proceedings.
A touch more breeze might have benefited Hoffman’s other end-of-the-year opening, the smart but somewhat claustrophobic The Savages, in which he is paired with Laura Linney. If Hoffman's performances frequently contain an undercurrent of fury, Linney’s are rarely more than a few steps removed from panic, and these tendencies interact with contrapuntal precision in Tamara Jenkins’s dark comedy about two siblings forced to care for their estranged father (Philip Bosco) as he slips into senile dementia.
Wendy Savage (Linney) is a would-be playwright who temps to
pay the bills and sleeps with a married neighbor while he’s supposedly out
walking the labrador. (The most memorable shot in the film is of her reaching
out to touch the dog’s paw in the midst of one such coital encounter, a pitiable
grasp at the connection sex isn’t providing.) Her brother, Jon (Hoffman),
teaches university classes in “the theatre of social unrest” while struggling to
complete his book on Brecht and pining for an ex-girlfriend who has flown back
And this is before
they get the call from a retirement community in
It’s a dynamic that persists, with somewhat diminishing returns, for most of the film. Linney and Hoffman are both terrific, and Jenkins’s script is pointed and perceptive, but the film’s arc is a little flat. Jenkins should be congratulated for not indulging in glib uplift, but she seems, for a while at least, uncertain of what to offer in its place. (It perhaps doesn’t help that this closed family dramedy stretches to a shade under two hours.) The Savages offers a great opportunity to watch two gifted performers mine the rough terrain between humor and despair. But if you’re like me, by the end you may feel ready for a movie that can’t even get itself too worked up about the collapse of communism and birth of global jihad.
CHRISTOPHER ORR is a senior editor at The New Republic.